As useful as roundups, retrospectives, and anniversary pieces can be for making sense of historical events, there’s no substitute for going back to primary documents. And an exceptional primary document quietly appeared on YouTube Sunday: the WSNS Channel 44 Chicago broadcast of the July 12, 1979 doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Those baseball games, only one of which was ultimately played, lived on in infamy under a different name: Disco Demolition Night.
Everyone knows the basic outline: Local radio DJ (and tasteless John Wayne Gacy parody songwriter) Steve Dahl loathed disco for personal reasons, having lost his job at WDAI when it changed to a disco format. After an escalating series of anti-disco stunts at his new home, rock station WLUP, Dahl hit the big time with a White Sox promotional night which rock fans could attend for 98 cents and a disco record. Between the doubleheader’s games, all the donated records would be blown up in center field. The turnout was beyond anything the ballpark had prepared for, and the resulting riot was, depending on who you asked, a racist, homophobic “hate-fest,” the end of a golden age, a “declaration of independence from the tyranny of sophistication,” or even a prelude to Gamergate.
The larger context of the disco backlash was understood even before Disco Demolition Night as homophobic and reactionary, but exactly what happened that evening at Comiskey Park depended on who was telling the story, whether it was Michael Clarke Duncan or Patton Oswalt. But now viewers can experience the so-called “death of Disco” as it happened, courtesy of YouTube user ClassicMLB11, with promotional consideration from Schlitz (“Beer makes it good—Schlitz makes it great”), the association of Chicagoland McDonald’s restaurants, TrueValue hardware stores, Commonwealth Edison, Chicago’s Coke bottlers, Interlake, Inc., American Family Insurance, and the 46 Chicagoland Midas dealers, who say “When it comes to your car, it pays to Midas-ize!” Forget the broad strokes for once: Now you can experience Disco Demolition Night as a baseball game slowly going off the rails, mediated only by announcers Jimmy Piersall and Harry Caray. The trouble starts almost immediately, when Piersall botches the reading of the lineup, then blames his screwup on the unruly crowd and their obscene anti-disco banners:
…between the fireworks, the music, the disco music, the burning of the—at the thing, you’re lucky you don’t go nuts here. You know, I’ve been here, I wanna tell you, there’s a big chance of going nuts! How can you even read the lineup when you can’t even think? Right now there’s 30,000 kids and they’ve got dirty signs all over this park. I wanna tell ya—unbelievable! A guy like me who never thinks anything like what they’re putting out here—this is unbelievable! But let’s get back to the lineup.
As to the anti-disco crowd’s motives, some evidence can probably be inferred from the moment at 6:44, when an audience member audibly yells a homophobic slur at the blow-dried, leisure-suited man singing the national anthem. (It’s also a notably terrible rendition of the national anthem.) As the game progresses, there’s footage of records sailing out of the crowd and Caray trying to calm things down, but the real action begins at 2:26:00, when Jim Morrison swings and misses Aurelio López’s pitch, bringing the first game to a close—a 4–1 win for the visiting Tigers. Unfortunately, the moments immediately following the game are missing from the tape; someone taped over that section with part of a later report from WGN News 9, reassuring the audiences that “experience observers say that the rioting was not caused by White Sox fans.”
But at 2:29:35, after a brief interlude of static, the tape cuts back to WSNS 44, just in time to see Steve Dahl riling up the audience, asking, “How ’bout Donna Summer?” to an overwhelming chorus of boos. It’s an all-star Chicago lineup: WLUP spokesmodel (and Rocky Horror Picture Show lip model) Lorelei Shark is there, but weirdly, Bulls announcer Tommy Edwards is out on the field with Dahl too. At least, it seems to be Edwards—it’s hard to imagine who else Dahl would have called “Little Snot Nose,” even if he was at rival station WLS at the time. Edwards leads the “Disco Sucks” chant as Dahl goes to set off the unconvincing explosions and half-heartedly joins in Dahl’s tuneless “Do You Think I’m Disco” singalong. Then, at 2:39:00, all hell breaks lose as fans stream onto the field and the riot begins. Jimmy Piersall’s immediate reaction is priceless: “This garbage of demolishing a record has turned into a fiasco!” Piersall goes on to make the case that Steve Dahl is a symptom of national decline, telling Bill Gleason, “We have become followers. So many people, insecure, don’t know what to do with themselves and how to have a good time—they follow someone who’s a jerk!” But it’s Gleason’s “a few bad apples” argument that really reminds you how long ago 1979 was:
There are a lot of happy kids out there. I don’t mean “happy” in the modern sense, but pleasant kids enjoying themselves, showing off a little bit.
The tape doesn’t stay with WSNS’s coverage for the entire riot—it seems the station eventually gave up and cut to its studio until the field was cleared—but the other footage is equally choice. At 2:46:37, you can see WLS-TV’s coverage that night, including Rosmarie Gulley’s live broadcast from Comiskey Park. She blames the violence on disco and the radio station, naturally, but also mentions “the heat, and a lot of drugs.” Other news reports follow, but the most amazing thing on the tape might be at 3:05:22: Steve Dahl’s appearance on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder. The other guest that night was Meatloaf, and his complete lack of interest in Dahl’s radio DJ-level jokes is an absolute delight. And don’t miss the WLS-TV profile of Dahl that ends the tape, which has top-notch passive-aggressive newscaster banter. Or maybe just aggressive: Future Hard Copy anchor Terry Murphy gives Dahl a typical wrapup—“He’s outrageous, he’s irreverent, but he truly is one of the most talented people…”—but John Daly is not having any of it. “I think he’s going to be all washed up before he’s 30,” he cuts her off. “Just trying to be honest, Steve.” Disco Demolition Nights come and Disco Demolition Nights go, but local news is forever.